On this cold, clear blue day, the ground beneath my feet is damp, muddy, covered with bruised leaves and discarded cores, and I have to concentrate on each step to make sure my shoes don’t slip.
It’s morning, the time of day when this work is usually done, although it typically begins hours before the sun comes up, and Tim is just ahead of me, moving towards the low rumble of a wide, slowly rolling machine where workers are pulling green globes from the ground by hand, cutting out each individual core with a single swift stab, scraps falling to the field as fertilizer behind them, then washing the lettuce and placing it on a conveyor belt that takes them to boxes bound for processing.
We’re in California, about an hour outside Monterey, standing, along with a dozen or so other bloggers, in the middle of one of Dole’s iceberg lettuce fields.
A tall man in blue jeans, Mark Pisoni, tells us he’s a third-generation farmer providing produce for Dole. Another man, from Dole, demonstrates, corer in hand, how lettuce harvesting is done, pulling one head after another into his arms.
Dole’s already told us at their Monterey headquarters that they work with over 9,000 small growers, many of whom they’ve had decades-long relationships with, and now they’re showing us. Pisoni’s family farms 500 acres of iceberg lettuce, romaine, celery, broccoli and cauliflower in the Salinas Valley, working on land that’s been in his family for close to 100 years.
They take us to a Dole processing plant, where we see the same kinds of lettuce that was just harvested get washed, chopped and packaged.
We brush up on our salad knowledge through a “name that lettuce” quiz I was sure Tim was going to win (who knows the difference between red tango lettuce and Salanova? Turns out my husband does!). We are briefed on Dole’s Salad’tude campaign—a new marketing approach that centers on finding your own personal salad style, and we’re asked for our thoughts on salad/vegetable trends and what we see happening in the industry.
All of this happens in and around Monterey, California, a beautiful oceanside city with the feel of a rich, temperate beach town. And now that I’m seeing all the natural beauty (and bounty!) northern California offers, I’m totally understanding why everyone wants to live here.
With some of our free time, Tim and I wander along Cannery Row, gazing at the ocean and taking pictures by the Monterey Aquarium. We grab a taxi to Whole Foods (addicts!) and see our favorite kombucha for $2.99 a bottle—this is not the sales price, mind you, just the typical one—and buy snacks for the plane rides home the next day.
We’ve eaten well this whole short trip, from the snacks at cocktail hour:
to the first night’s dinner at The Sardine Factory near our hotel, where Dole treated us to our choice of meal, which for us meant caprese salad and wild fish.
to today’s lunch at La Bicyclette in Carmel, easily one of our favorite meals all year (more information on that below):
And from the food to the farm tours, Dole is surprising us—more than anything with its approachability and desire for interaction. This is a company that tells us its goal is to get people to eat more salad, and we appreciate that. Salad is easy to digest, filled with nutrients and, hello, it tastes good.
The one thing on Tim’s and my mind throughout the meals and sessions is the issue of GMOs and pesticides, particularly because lettuce is one of the most heavily sprayed foods, one that we always buy local and/or organic. We find out they don’t use GMOs in their salad production, ever—encouraging! Then someone asks about pesticides: Does Dole use them? Yes. But they say post-wash testing has shown 85% of their products have no traces left when they go out to the public, we see later because the lettuce is washed at least three times in chlorinated water before hitting consumers, in the case of iceberg lettuce, once on the field and then three times in the plant (this is all within FDA levels, they emphasize)—discouraging!
Here’s Tim’s more in-depth take on these issues:
To be honest, we don’t normally purchase Dole salads. For one thing, we want produce that was raised as clean as possible, without pesticides, whether or not it’s organic. Also, we want fresh–and while Dole has many processes in place to ensure freshness, they just can’t beat something that has been grown locally and harvested either the same day or within a couple days. Dole understands why I’d feel this way. I’m encouraged hearing Gil Oetzel, director of new product development, talk, as he understands the fact that plants and produce are living and that life continues to act out in the plant, even after harvest, through enzymes, bacteria and oxidation until the plant is no more. The closer to fully alive that you can eat a plant, the better—every minute a plant or fruit is cut or picked means a reduction of this life and energy.
That said, through our entire trip, we’ve been seeing firsthand that Dole really is doing a great job at fulfilling their mission to have more and more people eating fruits and vegetables—and I think that is a great mission to have! They provide salad for people all over the country and world, in many cases in the best state that is available to those individuals. Dole salads are, no question, a better option than so much of the processed food available today. We applaud their desire to promote produce to mainstream America. And too, like Shanna wrote, Dole is open to discussion about concerns and even indicated a desire to move towards organics or a removal of pesticides if possible in the future.
At the same time, this trip just clarifies even stronger why I think the way I do about produce. In our current food system, far too many things are sterilized to the max. Dole, like other brands, uses chlorine solutions that, according to FDA guidelines, can be up to over ten times as much chlorine as in the public water supply (something we already try to avoid through filters).
The chlorine washes are applied to produce to ensure that it is free of all bacteria, good and bad, and this is part of the reason why Americans have such poor gut health. Our system decimates healthy intestinal flora through the continued use of bacteria-killers like antiobiotics and chlorine. For this reason, and rightly so, probiotics have been coming more to the forefront these days (see our post on kefir as an example). Traditionally, getting probiotics, or good bacteria, was as easy as going to the tree and picking a piece of fresh fruit, pulling berries right off the bush or eating lettuce right from the garden—all of which were still full of good bacteria that had not been sterilized by chlorine. It is very difficult to fully ascertain the effects of pesticides (even if washed off), chlorine and industrial processing to vegetables. On the other hand, it is pretty easy to see the traditional health benefits of pure produce the way God made it on the tree, from the plant or cultivated in the garden.
Our overall takeaways: At the end of our Dole trip, we both feel a sense of enrichment—thankful to have seen and learned about the way the world’s biggest provider of fruits and vegetables runs its operations. We have great respect for the way Dole is making itself open to dialogue and taking the initiative to seek out feedback, and we are hopeful that this will mean in the future, the company, along with its growers, will move more and more towards an even higher quality of product.
Places featured in this post:
2959 Monterey Salinas Highway
Monterey, California 93940
InterContinental, The Clement Monterey
750 Cannery Row
Staying at the InterContinental was a little like reliving part of our honeymoon, as we spent our wedding night at one of their Chicago locations. In addition to our king-sized bed, in-room fireplace and balcony, we loved the hotel’s second floor Ocean Terrace with outside seating areas overlooking the water.
Dinner at The Sardine Factory
701 Wave Street – Cannery Row
Just walking distance from our hotel, this historic and highly acclaimed establishment was our first meal in Monterey and what a welcome! Eating in The Sardine Factory’s domed, glass-enclosed Conservatory Room was the definition of four-star treatment, especially since DOLE told us to order whatever we liked. Tim had the blackened halibut; I got the wild salmon; and we shared appetizers of heirloom tomato bruschetta.
Lunch at La Bicyclette
Carmel, California 93923
This was the place we were most looking forward to and the place we most hated to leave. Set in charming Carmel, La Bicyclette believes in cooking with local, organic and high-quality ingredients, and at their French-village-style café, they wowed us with a DOLE-focused meal including rainbow beet salad, creamy and comforting nantes carrot risotto, three different kinds of wood-fire-oven pizzas (fava bean and oyster mushroom, butternut squash and arugula, lamb sausage and mint pesto) and a chocolate mousse we’re already dreaming about re-creating.
*Disclaimer: Special thanks to Dole, who sponsored this visit to Monterey and the entire blogger summit; as well as to DGWB, the agency behind this trip, especially the welcoming Amanda Sheaffer, who organized and coordinated travel, activities and events. While this trip was sponsored, please note all opinions expressed on this blog are our own.